In 1811, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was commissioned to paint an image for the ceiling of Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom at the Palazzo del Quirinale in Rome. The former papal palace was being prepared for the French emperor’s visit to the city to assume the title King of Rome and make himself the explicit heir to the Caesars. But Ingres’s painting is not, as might be expected, on a Roman theme. It shows instead the supposedly ancient Gaelic bard Ossian, a blind white-haired figure slumped over his Celtic harp, dreaming of the figures who hover above him. Among them are some of the central figures of Irish mythology, including the warrior and hunter Finn mac Cumaill.
Ingres knew that Napoleon was besotted by the poems of Ossian, which were in fact fabrications woven in the 1760s by the Scottish writer James Macpherson from traditional materials but passed off as rediscoveries of the lost works of a third-century-AD warrior-bard. Napoleon had previously commissioned for his home at the Château de Malmaison an even stranger painting: Anne-Louis Girodet’s bizarre Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes, in which the Gaelic bard welcomes into the afterlife the French generals killed in the revolutionary wars.
It is a peculiar thought that in some parallel universe where Napoleon completed his dominion over Europe, the gods and superhumans of pre-Christian Ireland might have become the official icons of a French-dominated continent. Instead, they remained what they have been for 1,500 years: elusive and angular figures whose very ambiguity has made them supremely adaptable. Paradoxically, these haughty heroes have proven to be most obedient servants, lending themselves at different times to the needs of medieval Irish poets and Victorian theosophists, of Napoleonic propaganda and New Age visions, of W.B. Yeats and J.R.R. Tolkien.
It is a fascinating history and in Mark Williams’s Ireland’s Immortals it has found a magnificent historian. Williams, an Oxford-based scholar of Welsh, Irish, and English medieval literature, is equally at home in the arcana of Old Irish texts and modern English-language writing, and it is this range of erudition that has allowed him to write the first full overview of the long twilight of the Irish gods. Ireland’s Immortals is not just a history of their afterlife—it deserves to be seen as itself a part of that history.
At the heart of this story is a kind of tenderness: the reluctance of one culture to obliterate entirely the one that it had supplanted. To get some idea of the original meaning of those figures like Finn mac Cumaill in Ingres’s painting, we can turn to a book composed around 1220 AD but bringing together many of the older stories of an imagined pre-Christian Ireland. Accalam na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Elders) is a…
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